Mosquito Man

What the late Roger Tory Peterson was to birds, the Richard F. Darsie Jr., Ph.D., is to mosquitoes. If it flies, if it whines, if it bites - and even if it never bites - he can describe it at length.

And he will.

The white-haired Darsie likes to study mosquitoes through a microscope at the University of Florida's Medical Entomology Laboratory, on the state's east coast. He likes to study eggs, larvae and pupae. Sometimes he goes looking for a good puddle, deposits larvae into a vial and raises the larvae to adulthood. That way he can identify a mosquito through its life stages.

Every quarter-century or so, he updates his tome, "Identification and Geographical Distribution of the Mosquitoes of North America, North of Mexico." U.S. booksellers are not sweeping "The Da Vinci Code" off their shelves to make room for a technical science book, but this hardly bothers a dedicated mosquito man. So far, 800 readers have shelled out $75 for the newest edition, a 384-page volume co-written with Washington, D.C., entomologist Ronald A. Ward.

"Who will buy this book? Are you kidding me?" Darsie asks. "Every mosquito control district in the U.S. should have this book, every agency that has any dealings with mosquitoes, and every university library that has an entomology department should have this book."

Though humanity frets about terrorists, AIDS and ebola, as teeth are gnashed regarding the unspeakable appetites of sharks and alligators, the most dangerous threat to Homo sapiens most likely remains the humble mosquito.

In the developing world's tropics, mosquito-transmitted malaria kills up to 2.7 million people a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Although malaria was virtually eliminated from North America a half-century ago, no mosquito expert sleeps soundly here. With bad luck, the disease could fly in on a mosquito's wings.

Dengue, another sometimes fatal mosquito-borne disease, is active along the Texas border. Encephalitis, which can be fatal, flairs up annually somewhere in the United States. In recent years, West Nile virus has shown up from New York to Florida.

That is why "Know thy enemy" is the credo of folks in the mosquito business, and why Darsie is their Yoda.

"Mosquitoes belong to the phylum Arthropoda, class Insecta, order Diptera," is how he begins his book, published by University Press of Florida in December.

Mosquito scientists try to avoid writing like Hemingway. The famous author, however, would have appreciated the effort. He once came down with a raging case of malaria.

As Hemingway recovered from malaria in 1922, he was not interviewed by Richard F. Darsie. But it's a situation some don't mind wondering about. Darsie is almost old enough to have pulled off that unlikely conversation.

"I am sorry," Darsie says, "but I never discuss my age."

His colleagues, however, do.

"It is hard to talk about Dr. Darsie without bringing up his age," declares Jonathan Day, a UF entomologist and national expert on West Nile. "That's what makes him so remarkable. He is still extraordinarily productive at the age of 90."

The mosquito man has wavy white hair, a white mustache and a white goatee that leaves him looking a bit like Col. Harland Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame.

Darsie is slender and pale, with a mind sharper than a mosquito's proboscis. His hearing is still acute enough to detect a mosquito's whine during one of his daily saunters.

When mosquitoes bite, he refuses to give them the satisfaction of a swat.

"If you are exposed to mosquito bites long enough, you become immune to the effects of the saliva, which the mosquitoes inject into your skin, which causes the itching," he says. "I don't even feel a bite anymore."

There are 3,084 known species of mosquitoes in the world. In the United States, 174 species have been described.

Not all mosquitoes are biters. Mosquitoes that bite are females. They require a meal of blood to manufacture eggs.

Darsie first became part of the mosquito food chain in Scottsdale, Pa., where he grew up. His mother was a homemaker and his dad was a coal mine engineer, but even as a child Darsie had bugs on his brain. He was a science whiz in high school, majored in biology at Bethany College in West Virginia and earned his master's at the University of Pittsburgh. Drafted into the Air Force, he spent the next four years in Florida.

"Ever hear of Buckingham Air Force Base?" he asks. He shakes his head at the reply. "You must not know your history! It was in Fort Myers."

Fort Myers during the 1940s was an excellent place to experience voracious mosquitoes, though Darsie was hardly a mosquito man then. He was in the medical corps. Another soldier, a college professor, encouraged him to pursue a doctorate in applied science. After the war, Darsie finished his studies at Cornell.

He has stalked mosquitoes from Delaware ("Aedes sollicitans is an awful nuisance") to Katmandu ("For every 100 mosquitoes I dissected, I found three with malaria parasites"). He learned early to wear long pants, a long-sleeved shirt, socks and a hat. When night fell, he was always secure in his tent, flaps closed, safe from mosquitoes. He has never contracted a mosquito-transmitted disease.

"Only time I was sick was when I crawled in a cave to study insect parasites on the island of Barbuda in the Caribbean and developed histoplasmosis. You don't know what histoplasmosis is? It is a disease you get from breathing powdered bat droppings. I was sick for quite a while."

The choir of mosquitoes you hear whining around your ears is not singing. The sound is produced by the beating of wings. Even Darsie can't identify a mosquito by its whine. But if he can catch it and study it under a magnifying glass, he is in business.

After a fruitful career with the Centers for Disease Control, the Agency for International Development, the University of South Carolina and the International Center for Public Health, Darsie returned to Florida in 1996.

Florida has 72 known species of mosquitoes. The two most dangerous, which can transmit encephalitis and West Nile, are Culex nigripalpus and Culex quinquefasciatus. Few people become ill, but occasionally somebody dies. Mosquito control employees from all over the country regularly visit the entomology lab in Florida and take a class with Darsie, who teaches them to recognize the enemy.

The most fearsome mosquito in Florida, in terms of aggravation, is probably Ochlerotatus taeniorhynchus, also known as the salt marsh mosquito. In the Everglades in June, among the mangrove forests, some people claim that a swarm can blot out the sun. Everglades park rangers often wear special clothing, complete with head nets, during summer.

His lab is a big, modern building hidden among the oaks near the Indian River. His office is crammed with neat stacks of papers and boxes containing mounted mosquito specimens. Sometimes, as he peers through a microscope, he sketches. What looks like a strange doodle turns out to be the breathing tube of a mosquito larva.

Sometimes he rears larvae for further study. To keep them alive, he has to feed them. He figures out the menu by their appearance. Predatory larvae - they often have fearsome jaws and grabbing hooks - receive liver powder and lacto-albumin.

His new book is filled with sketches and text about everything he has learned so far. The book includes maps showing where certain species can be found.

The previous version of the book was published in 1981. Information changed, and it needed an update.

Darsie continues to collect information for the next edition. He may not be around to see it in print, but his science likely will endure.

He is working on a paper with an entomologist who is collecting mosquitoes at Grand Canyon National Park. "We are trying to identify species that might transmit West Nile," Darsie says. "We have identified seven species that have never been collected at Grand Canyon before."

Does he know how many species are found at Grand Canyon in all?

"Are you kidding? Of course I do! There are 32 species of mosquitoes that we know of at the Grand Canyon. They are mostly found in the lower elevations. If you don't want to be bitten, stay at the North Rim."

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Mosquito expert Dr. Richard Darsie Jr. says he's been bitten so many times he has become immune to the effects of mosquito saliva and no longer feels their bites.

When mosquitoes bite, he refuses to give them the satisfaction of a swat.

"If you are exposed to mosquito bites long enough, you become immune to the effects of the saliva, which the mosquitoes inject into your skin, which causes the itching," he says. "I don't even feel a bite anymore."


By Jeff Klinkenberg, St. Petersburg Times

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